Anchorage labor law repeal appears headed for November vote

Nathaniel Herz

A public vote on Anchorage's controversial labor law appears increasingly likely to occur on Nov. 4, according to the city charter and interviews with Assembly members.

The Assembly had previously voted 6-5 to schedule a referendum on the law along with the city's regular election on April 1, but a judge earlier in the week ruled that Mayor Dan Sullivan had the power to veto that move.

The Assembly could still force the election onto the April ballot by essentially running out the clock, instead of pushing the vote to a new date in the fall, according to an interpretation of the charter by the Assembly's attorney.

But Assemblyman Bill Starr, who had voted for the April date, says he now supports scheduling the referendum along with the state's November election instead -- an idea that's likely to get the support of the majority of Assembly members at their next meeting.

"My natural progression was to follow the charter, and I believe it literally stacked up what we were supposed to do," Starr said in an interview. "I've already chosen April once before -- it would be different if I had to change my position. April 1 is sort of off the table."

Starr's position, however, conflicts with the opinion of the Assembly's attorney, Julia Tucker.

In an email to Assembly members Wednesday, provided to the Daily News by Assemblyman Dick Traini, Tucker said that "a fair reading of the charter may require" the city to hold the election within 75 days of the judge's ruling -- a window that would close on March 31st.

However, the window could likely be extended one day to match up with the April 1 city election, said Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall, with the permission of the unions that sponsored the referendum. Gerard Asselin, the chairman of the city's Coalition of Municipal Unions, said labor groups would accept that.

But Starr maintains the Assembly already passed on its chance to schedule the referendum within the 75-day window. He said that happened when members failed to pick that option when they were first considering their choices several months ago -- and selected the April date.

"I respect the legal opinion of a lawyer, but it's still my job to interpret the charter," Starr said. "I've already said I'll put it on the April ballot. That got overruled by the process."

Under the charter, the Assembly can vote to postpone the referendum beyond the 75-day window, and a measure to do so is scheduled to come before members at their next meeting, on Jan. 28.

The Assembly could also appeal the judge's decision on Sullivan's veto power, or attempt to override the veto, but both those scenarios appear unlikely, members said.

The referendum, whenever it happens, will be the climax of what has already been a nearly yearlong battle over the labor law between Sullivan and city unions, and their respective allies on the Assembly.

The labor law passed the Assembly last March by a 6-5 vote. It limits the growth in compensation for city unions, curtails their ability to strike, and eliminates binding arbitration.

A union effort to overturn the law through a public vote got hung up in court, but was finally cleared by a ruling from the Alaska Supreme Court earlier this month. Now, the only question that remains is when the referendum will be scheduled.

Sullivan and some Assembly members who support the November date say that option, which would occur in tandem with the state's election, would maximize turnout.

State elections consistently draw more voters than the city's April Assembly elections.

"The goal is for the election to be held when there's a significant turnout," Sullivan said on a talk radio appearance on KBYR-AM 700 earlier this week. "The unions, they clearly would like to dominate a smaller turnout."

The unions, and their Assembly allies, say that the April date, in tandem with the city's regular election, makes more sense -- and they accuse their opponents of trying to delay the vote.

"They're just trying to wait us out so that we're forced to re-educate everybody," said Joelle Hall, the director of operations for the Alaska AFL-CIO.

Both the April date and the November date come with complications.

The 75-day window set by the charter technically ends on March 31, just one day before the regular municipal election.

Holding two elections on back-to-back days would send the city clerk's office "into a tailspin," said Assemblywoman Jennifer Johnston, who represents South Anchorage.

So it's likely the city would get permission from the referendum's sponsors to push back the vote by one day.

A November date would require the city to coordinate with state officials to hold a joint election, which hasn't been done since 2004.

Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones told Assembly members in September that she had concerns about the potential for state ballots to get mixed up with city ballots, and about her office's ability to compete with the state to hire already scarce election workers.

Extra costs around the November election would also amount to at least $345,000, according to an analysis by the clerk's office.

Gail Fenumiai, the state's director of elections, said in an interview that her office would follow its own regulations addressing joint state and local elections if Anchorage chose to pursue that option.

"There's a lot of things that have to be ironed out," she said.

A joint state-city vote would not be run as a single election; it would essentially be conducted as two elections on the same day.

That means Anchorage would have to print out its own colored ballots, to distinguish from the state's. And the state's votes would get counted first.

"I don't get it. I don't think it's possible," said Assemblyman Patrick Flynn, who supports the April date.

Assemblywoman Amy Demboski, a proponent of the November date, acknowledged that the logistics would be challenging.

"But it's not unprecedented. It's been done before," said Demboski, who represents Eagle River and Chugiak. "We have a responsibility to ensure the clerk has everything she needs in order to accomplish the task."

If Assembly members approve the November option at their next meeting, but an agreement can't be reached with the state to hold a joint election, the measure they're considering at their Jan. 28 meeting allows the referendum to be postponed until the city's next mayoral election, in April of 2015.

Adam Trombley, the chairman of the Assembly's elections committee, said in an interview that he planned to write Fenumiai, the state elections director, to see if it would be possible for the city to place the single referendum question on the state's ballots.

Fenumiai, in an email, said that was unlikely.

"I would say that the two elections would need to remain distinct from each other," she said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.